Most nights, Belle — the protagonist of “Rouge,” Mona Awad’s dark, enchanted new novel about beauty and its pitfalls — falls asleep to the sound of skincare YouTube videos, her face coated in brightening serums and hydrating mists.
Awad knows the feeling well. In the fall of 2019, she too was obsessed with product reviews and seven step routines.
“It all started with my addiction to skincare videos. I just couldn’t stop watching them,” Awad said. “I couldn’t help but ask myself: What’s going on here? What is this obsession pointing toward?”
To answer those questions, she dove deep into the waters of the beauty industry, discovering that, despite their apparent concern with surfaces, those videos “go pretty deep. They bring up envy, desire, vulnerability, and insecurity.”
“The book is about the dangers of obsessing with the surface and what depths might lurk beneath,” said Awad, while noting that the beauty industry itself markets some products that are frightening at first glance: The Ordinary’s AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution, for instance, looks like blood when applied; some LED face masks resemble Jason’s mask in “Friday the 13th.”
But even the more mundane beauty products strike Awad as occult.
“There is something sort of magical about the appeal of skincare. There’s definitely the possibility of transformation, right?”
The enchantment that suffuses the noir dreamscape of “Rouge” is no accident: In writing the book, Awad was inspired by the works of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. While studying at the University of Edinburgh, she wrote her dissertation on fear in fairy tales, and now she teaches a course called Art of the Fairy Tale at Syracuse University.
“I’d always wanted to work with ‘Snow White,’” she said. “It’s a fairytale about beauty, but it’s also a fairytale about envy.” In her version, Awad inverts the mother-daughter relationship of the classic tale, casting Belle’s mother as the archetypal beautiful maiden who leaves her daughter looking in the mirror, asking, “Who is the fairest of them all?”
“I always wonder, in ‘Snow White,’ if it’s just her speaking to herself or if it’s actually an entity in the glass,” Awad said. In “Rouge,” she poses that very question. Reality is blurred and characters lose themselves over the course of the novel, but one thing remains clear: Transformation comes with violence, and at a cost unknowable until it’s almost too late.
Mona Awad will read at 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 11, at Cambridge Public Library in an event hosted by Harvard Book Store, where she will be in conversation with Laura Zigman.
Elena Giardina can be reached at email@example.com.